The Top Ten Exegetical Discoveries of the Historical Jesus

 It is a sobering thought that, despite all the carefully planned, financed, managed, and executed digs for architectural or textual antiquities, it was not visiting scholars but Bedouin shepherds, Egyptian peasants and Tibetan monks who have discovered the hidden texts pertaining to the historical Jesus. For many of the items on this list, however, the very term “discovery” presents a challenge. Not only the interpretation, but also the very existence of some of these texts may be debated. Not everyone will accept or believe these discoveries to be authentic. Still, we stress these ten items because, whether one responds positively or negatively to certain categories, they all have significantly determined how we evaluate the textual evidence for the historical Jesus. Each item on this list is significant because of accumulation and combination, and each item is, at the very least, ancient. One example or one category alone is not as important as the relationship of all the data when studied collectively.

1. The Gospel of the Nazirenes. In 1870, this Aramaic manuscript was discovered, translated and later published. This ancient scripture, hidden away for centuries in a Tibetan monastery, seems in virtually every respect identical to the work by the same title, that was known and widely quoted from in the first century by the church. Many of the most revered early church fathers, as well as a surprising number of scholars today, have boldly declared that the legendary Gospel of the Nazirenes, later to be known as "The Gospel of the Holy Twelve," is nothing less than the long-lost original Gospel which, legend holds, was collectively written by the actual 12 apostles in the period immediately following Christ's death, and upon which all of the Biblical synoptic Gospels are based. Considered by some theologians to be the elusive "Q Gospel."

2. The Dead Sea Scrolls. These documents are the library of a sectarian group that deliberately separated itself from the priestly authorities of Jerusalem’s Temple to live a communal existence in proper ritual purity and correct calendrical observance on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. After the first discovery in 1947, the community’s home was excavated at Khirbet Qumran and the library gathered from eleven caves in the cliffs behind it. Some texts were relatively complete, some were severely damaged, but hundreds were tattered into fragments numbering in the tens of thousands. The library’s contents, ranging in date from around 200 B.C.E. to 70 C.E., show very fully the theory and practice of the Essenes, a sect known from several ancient writers, and they provide precious data on a specific lifestyle within the first-century Jewish home-land that is valuable as a foreground for Judaism and background for Christianity.

3. The Nag Hammadi Codices. These Christian documents, forty-five texts in thirteen papyrus books, or codices, were discovered in 1945 near modern Nag Hammadi and ancient Chenoboskion, about 370 miles south of Cairo. They are fourth-century transcriptions in Coptic (Egyptian written with an expanded Greek alphabet), but they contain works whose Greek originals go back to the preceding centuries. The library’s diverse genres and theologies show an emphasis on Gnosticism (belief in salvation from human enslavement in the world of matter, as opposed to the world of spirit, by secret knowledge, or gnosis) and maybe even more so on asceticism, but they do not represent the precise ideology of any know Christian sect. They may have been gathered together in agreement or disagreement with their contents and thereafter buried in their sealed jar for protection, as precious, or oblivion, as heretical. They are extremely important as an indication or pre-Christian Gnosticism and of the diversity within early Christianity itself.

4. Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Once it became obvious to scholarship that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were so similar in sequence and content that some sort of genetic connections had to be presumed (a first discovery), the next step was to find the most credible trajectory for that relationship (a second discovery). In 1789-90 Johann Jakob Griesbach suggested that Matthew came first, Mark copied from Matthew, and Luke copied from them both. But in 1835 Karl Lachmann proposed a different genesis: Mark came first, and both Mathew and Luke copied from it independently of each other. The latter alternative is today the dominant explanation, and it is primarily the layering of Mark within Matthew and Luke that justifies our use of “excavation” for exegesis as well as archeology. 

5. Q Gospel. Based on those two interdependent discoveries, a third was almost immediately added. With Mark before us, it was easy to see which sections Matthew and Luke used. But there were too many other sections in Matthew and Luke not in Mark, but present with sufficiently similar sequence and content that another major source had to be postulated (a third discovery). In 1838, Christian Hermann Weisse developed some earlier ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher and suggested such a second source. In 1863, Julius Holtzmann gave that source a first name. He called it “L” for Logia, the Greek word for “sayings” (of Jesus). In 1890, finally Johannes Weiss gave it the name that stuck. He called it “another common source” in Matthew and Luke (apart from Mark) and, because he was writing in German, in which “source” is Quelle, the abbreviation Q became universally accepted.

6. The Synoptic Gospels and John. The consensus of scholarship about source conclusions declines steeply as one moves from Mark through the Q Gospel and into John. Is John dependent on or independent if the three synoptic gospels? One expert claims, maximally, that there is now “a growing consensus” for dependence, but another concludes, minimally, that in the early decades of this century the safer position was dependence; then, between 1955 and 1980, the safer position was independence, until now neither position can be safely “taken for granted.” In other words, at least this: you cannot now invoke consensus on the debate, but must at least summarize the reasons for your own position. But, clearly, in terms of the excavation metaphor, it is crucially important to discover for oneself whether John is or is not dependent on the synoptic gospels. Think, for example, of the passion story: are all versions dependent on Mark alone or do we have two independent sources in Mark and John?

7. The Gospel of Thomas. Among the Nag Hammadi texts was a complete Coptic gospel whose Greek original had been discovered but not recognized in fragments of three different copies found around the turn of the last century at modern Bahnasa (ancient Oxyrhynchus), about 120 miles south of Cairo. The Gospel of Thomas contains only aphorisms, parables, or short dialogues of Jesus and almost no narratives at all, especially no birth stories, miracle stories, or passion and resurrection stories. It has a distinctive theology denying any validity to a hope for the apocalyptic future, but demanding instead a return to the Edenic past through celibate asceticism. Once again, the textual-excavation question is whether it is dependent on or independent of the canonical gospels. There is probably a consensus for independence among Thomas experts in this country, but much less so in Europe or among the New Testament gospel scholars.

8. Common Sayings Tradition. About one-third of the material in the Q Gospel and the Gospel of Thomas is common data. There is no evidence that either gospel is dependent on the other in terms of redactional sequence or content. Further, the order of that common tradition is so completely divergent that no common written source can be plausibly postulated for it. Finally, there is no particular reason why the generally orderless Gospel of Thomas would have changed any written source’s order. Yet there are, by the most conservative estimate, thirty-seven units of tradition adopted and adapted by both gospels into their own quite different theological frameworks. This is one very significant case where a mass of “oral tradition” can be seen most clearly at work.

9. The independence of The Teaching (Didache) from the gospels. We have many first-century letters like Paul’s telling communities how they should behave, but this small text, called the Didache, that is, The Teaching or The Instruction, is a community rule or church order spelling out how one such early group actually lived and especially how new pagan converts had to change to join that Christian Jewish community. It was written in the second half of the first century, but early or late is disputed within that period. In 1873 it was discovered within an eleventh-century codex in a Greek monastery in Constantinople. The major issue is once again dependence or independence in relationship to the canonical gospels. This is crucially important because of a small collection of Jesus’ most radical sayings that appears at the very start of the document. That minicatechism is also present in the Q Gospel, so stratification is once again very significant. Is either dependent on the other, or is there an earlier layer used by them both?

10. The Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Peter is a second-century gospel known, like the Gospel of Thomas, from two separate discoveries. A large Greek fragment of about sixty versus, copied into a pocketbook codex between 600 and 900, was found in 1886-87 at Akmim, about 310 miles south of Cairo. Two tiny Greek fragments of under three versus, from a scroll dated to about 200, were found among those turn-of-the-century Oxyrhynchus papyri mentioned above. The present content narrates the trial, death, burial, resurrection, and apparition (presumably) of Jesus, starts and ends in mid-sentence, and is dependent on the canonical gospels. But the major question is whether it also contains another account that is both narratively consecutive and canonically independent.

Codices and Abbreviations. Two very striking discoveries appear when the earliest Christian documents are studied all together. One is that, at a time when pagan and Jewish literature was almost exclusively written in scroll (or roll) format, the earliest Christian literature was almost exclusively in codex (or book) format. Compare, for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls with the Nag Hammadi Codices. That latter “inferior” format bespeaks the work of ordinary scribes, not calligraphic experts used to copying great literature, but workaday writers used to creating legal documents and composing personal letters. Another anomaly is that certain divine or sacred words, initially four (“Lord,” “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ”) and eventually fifteen, were regularly abbreviated and marked with a line across the top of the shortened forms. Those twin and consistent novelties indicate some central control over the earliest Christian texts, but if that was everywhere or only in Egypt, where all our examples were found is still unknown.

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